Fighting the Scourge of Racism

UN officials have recently railed against racism they state is still rife in the world today. UN non-governmental organizations Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor stated, “We are seeing an alarming resurgence of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racism in many parts of the world today.”

Speaking to the Commission on Human Rights working group against racism Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights Bertrand Ramcharan said, “It is the role of the United Nations to bring to the conscience of the international community the pervasive violations of human rights that are taking place in the world and to call for a mobilization of conscience against such gross violations.”

Canada, which touts itself as a multicultural mosaic, would seem to belie the notion of racial disharmony but this would be disingenuous. The very people entrusted with the responsibility to protect all Canadians’ human rights have been implicated in the perpetuation of racist discord. Two incidents from the late 1990s illustrate well the racist attitudes held by some members of Canadian law enforcement: the cases of Stoney Point native Dudley George and Halifax boxer Kirk Johnson.

Ontario Provincial Police Racism in Stoney Point First Nation

Recently a surveillance tape came to light exposing racist attitudes held by members of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) during the standoff over a native blockade in Ipperwash Provincial Park in September 1995. The release of the tape was fought by the Ontario government but was released under access to information legislation. The remarks are very telling and the recording of the officers didn’t seem to constrain them at all as revealed by the following exchange:

“Is there still a lot of press down there?” an officer asks.
“No, there’s no one down there. Just a great big fat fuck Indian,” answers another.
“The camera’s rolling, eh?”
“We had this plan, you know. We thought if we could get five or six cases of Labatt’s 50, we could bait them.”
“Then we’d have this big net at a pit.”
“Creative thinking.”
“Works in the (U.S.) South with watermelon.”

The following day unarmed native protestor Dudley George was killed by an officer. OPP Sergeant Kenneth Deane was subsequently convicted in 1997 of criminal negligence causing death. It was noted by the judge that none of the protesters were armed during the incident, contrary to police assertions.

The OPP denounced the taped remarks. Superintendent Bill Crate “The words were shameful and offensive and they should never have been said. And I can tell you our position with regards to this is pretty clear. It’s just not acceptable behavior.” The offending officers recorded on the tape were disciplined.

“I think once they start to think like that then they start to downgrade a person to a certain extent,” commented Dudley George’s brother Sam about the recorded dehumanization. “Then they start to feel that that person’s not worth nothing. Then maybe it’s all right to shoot them.”

The dispute began in 1942 when the federal government using the War Measures Act expropriated land belonging to the Stoney Point First Nation to build a military camp. The Stoney Pont First Nation had been attempting ever since to reclaim the sacred land reputedly home to the interred remains of tribal ancestors.

The native occupation turned out ultimately to be successful. In 1998 a $26-million agreement was reached. The former military base was to be cleaned up and returned to the Kettle and Stoney Point First Nation. Compensation ranging from $150,000 to $400,000 will be paid to each member of the band.

Kirk Johnson exposes racism among Halifax Police

Back on Easter Sunday of 1998 Canadian boxer Kirk Johnson was pulled over by (Jipugtug) Halifax police constable Mike Sandford. Johnson maintains he was pulled over simply because he’s black.

Sanford, incredibly backed by four additional patrol cars, ticketed Johnson and impounded his car for being unregistered and uninsured. The following day Johnson received his car back and the tickets were cancelled.

Sanford’s lawyer contended that his client was concerned because of the car’s Texas plate and tinted windows, the latter being illegal in Nova Scotia. Furthermore, because the windows were tinted, Sanford maintained he was prevented from knowing the race of the vehicle’s occupants. But the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission ruled that the Halifax police had discriminated against Johnson in the incident. Dalhousie University law professor Philip Girard, who chaired the board of inquiry, awarded Johnson $10,000 and travel expenses. Johnson had been seeking $25,000.

In his decision, Girard wrote, “I find that the events of 12 April were very humiliating, stressful and painful for Mr. Johnson.”

Girard also ordered the Halifax Police to record racial statistics of all drivers stopped, to hire consultants to instill racial sensitivity and fairness.

Girard did not call for an apology, writing “a forced apology may be worse than no apology at all.”

The Halifax Regional Police Chief Frank Beazley has apologized to Johnson but won’t force Sanford to do the same. “It may have been an unconscious stereotype. How do you punish someone for something they did unconsciously?”

Sanford, backed by the police union, refuses to apologize for the incident.

“If I’ve got to make someone apologize to me, it ain’t real anyway,” said Johnson.

After the decision Johnson said, “This victory is very important. I’m happy, but I’m disappointed that it took five long years for justice to be served.”

Johnson finds the ruling important for blacks in Nova Scotia: “When the police stop us know, they’re giving us a real reason for stopping us… so already it has made some type of change.”

Mayann Francis of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission chair concurs: “For the police department, it’s like sending a message to all public authorities: You are gonna be held to a higher level of accountability. You must be transparent and you must work very hard to win the trust of Nova Scotians and the public, not just of the black community.”

The police union, however, backs up Sandford.

Bill Hollis with the Municipal Association of Police Personnel is adamant: “They stand behind Mike’s decision that he stopped it because of experience and training and that’s all. Not because of racism, not by profiling, not by stereotyping. No apologies.”

Johnson’s lawyer Victor Goldberg is dubious that the case will bring about improvement in racist attitudes on the police force.

Said Goldberg, “They don’t seem to get it. You have to wonder how there can be change if the rank and file don’t think there’s a problem. They’re just worried about their reputation.”

As a nation whose citizens represent the spectrum of the world’s people, Canada is specially poised to play a leading role as an exemplar of racial harmony and human rights. The mentioned cases, however, are not aberrations and they indicate that Canada still has a way to go before it can boast of having achieved interracial equality and harmony.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.